Thousands Upon Thousands / by Johnny Miller

Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha. A strip of sandy scrubland dotted with well-tended shacks. The fatty underbelly of Khayelitsha’s pork chop. The excess. Here and there a cemetery pokes through the shrubs. Here and there a road leads to foreign lands: Muizenberg, Stellenbosch, Mitchell’s Plain. Here and there concrete toilet blocks crumble in the unforgiving atmosphere of neglect.

But the shacks have yards. Yards! Little hedgerows and gates and fences and rakes neatly stacked like giant Zen gardens. Houses glow gaily in the setting sun; some painted with floral hues. To the south, a rocky bluff, and the frigid blue waters of False Bay. The Winelands gleam tantalizingly close in three different cardinal directions. False Bay, False Beauty. The harsh sound of filling ablution buckets fills the air. It’s a mirage. A drunk stumbles into me. Children pass with their maroon and azure jerseys, looking dapper. They give me a wary glance. Not too close. Not too trusting. There is an undercurrent that crackles and hums the way a high-tension wire does, even buried underground. Don’t forget that hum. Don’t ignore that crackle.

Underfoot sand. Sand! Sand everywhere. It falls out of my tripod legs at home. It covers my sheets at night. Sand is in my ears. The wind whips the sand into my ears. I can’t imagine living on a sand dune. The children scream and point their fingers like guns at my car. Pow, pow, pow! A work crew pours wet cement around a manhole cover attached to one of the city’s ablution blocks. There are eight toilets in a row, but only 3 of them work. They are all padlocked. I ask why? No one seems to give me a straight answer; its either city policy or enterprising residents.

A small kitten runs in front of me, suddenly stopping. She paws at the ground, squats, does her business, then covers up the mess. I look to my right. A child does the same thing. The bush stretches for kilometers to the sea. There are thousands of people here.

I lean against my car, taking a moment of silence to let the situation unfold in front of me. I notice a man on crutches ambling through the shacks towards the toilets. He takes ages to get there. Finally, he arrives and hails my companion in Xhosa. They talk. They begin to laugh. I ask what’s so funny. “It’s hard being disabled in Khayelitsha”, he informs me. It’s hard being disabled anywhere. This is impossible.

It’s not hard to get upset, or political. And why wouldn’t you want to? The situation is dire. There is rape, there is murder. There isn’t dignity here. The hedgerows, the gates…they mean nothing when you shit in a sandy bush. When your grandmother shits in a sandy bush.

We meet a girl who puts her fist onto her hip defiantly. “I took my cousin to the bush to go to the bathroom. She didn’t come back for a very long time. When we finally found her she was crying. We asked why. She said she had been raped.” The cousin was 6 years old.

I don’t know what I feel. Somehow it seems wrong filming the situation, like I’m complicit. Am I complicit? She stares at me with a steely anger. Then it breaks. She snorts out a booger and wipes her nose with the flat of her palm. Her hair stands straight up on her head. The elbows of her school jersey are worn completely through.

She lives amongst the sand dunes. She’s hardened beyond anything I will ever become.

In the air a violent wind blows off the Bay. Clouds race past the sun, alternating heat, cold, heat, cold. Kwaito music passes right through the thin walls of the shack we enter. Yet inside there is a kettle, there is electricity, there is a television, there is a couch. There are three framed pictures on the walls, framed pictures of the children, one of which appears to be graduating from some sort of college. I recognize it. I understand it. This is not foreign. This is a home, like I know it. It looks different from the outside, but it’s a home nonetheless.

It is confusing. It is sad. It is reality. It is life. It’s thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands, of people.